Samantha Fish’s Hard-Rocking Retro Soul Stands the Test of Time
The last time singer/guitarslinger Samantha Fish played New York, it was at Highline Ballroom – that’s how long her album Chills & Fever (streaming at Bandcamp) has been sitting on the hard drive here. It’s a standout in the ever-increasingly crowded field of musicians (and what’s left of the music industry bottomfeeders) who’ve figured out that a lot of people whose lives aren’t dictated by what’s popular on Instagram really love going out to dance to oldschool soul music.
Or did – until the lockdown destroyed everything.
Fish and her purist band revisit those sounds with a lot more rock energy than most: everything on this record is louder than on your typical classic soul album, and the band benefit from using gear with more dynamic range than tinny, sixty-year-old Vox amps. There’s a lot of music here: fourteen tracks! The first one, Jackie DeShannon’s He Did It gets turbocharged with a horn section – Mark Levron on trumpet and Travis Blotsky on saxes – and Fish’s haphazardly edgy, blues-tinged guitar breaks. But it also has a 21st-century edge: Fish amps up the lyric about being shamed by a backstabbing dude.
Shivery baritone sax kicks off the title track, a backbeat-driven noir take on Ronnie Love’s 1961 soul anthem with eerily echoey Rhodes piano from Bob Mervak. The album’s longest track, Ted Taylor’s Somebody’s Always Trying comes across as an even higher-energy remake of that song, with a careening jam at the end. Fish obviously has a thing for darkly torchy soul: she revisits that simmering vibe later with It’s Your Voodoo Working, set to a soul-clap beat, and then the slow, brooding Either Way I Lose, with Fish’s ominous wide-angle tremolo guitar.
She reinvents the old Barbara Lewis 70s soul hit Hello Stranger by taking it doublespeed, with Steve Nawara’s dancing bassline and the horns balanced by trebly organ and rippling Rhodes fills. Just when you think that the Irma Thomas hit Hurts All Gone is a going to be a balmy southern soul ballad, the guitars kick in hard on the chorus. Then Fish picks up the pace again with You Can’t Go, its sharp staccato riffage in the background behind her long blues guitar solo played through a 80s chorus pedal.
Lushly swaying along in 12/8 time, Never Gonna Cry is a defiantly soaring breakup ballad, The band make an improbably connection between 60s go-go shuffles and bluegrass with the Detroit Cobras’ Little Baby, then hit a relative calm with an appropriately organ-driven, gospel-tinged version of Allen Toussaint’s Nearer to You.
They follow You’ll Never Change, a snippy minor-key soul-blues tune, with a southern rock version of the old murder ballad Crow Jane. The album winds up with I’ll Come Running Over, the poppiest number here, an Australian hit for blue-eyed soul singer Lynne Randell. Fans of artists like Lizzie & the Makers, who use oldschool soul as a stepping-off point for sounds that aren’t limited by the format, should give this a spin.